The legendary racer was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday serving as the honorary pace car driver for the Bank of America 400. Coming from an era when he and fellow Indy Car legend A.J. Foyt earned success in stock cars and NASCAR drivers like the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough raced in Indy Cars, Andretti, 79, has an old-school philosophy about true drivers being able to wheel any kind of race car.
“I hear the excuses the sport is much more technical today,” Andretti said. “You cannot run major disciplines fully. You have to concentrate on one. But to cross over now and then, it doesn’t take anything away from where your main effort is. It never did for me. Today, it’s too specialized to me.”
After his family moved from his native Italy to the United States, Andretti got his start in stock car racing on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania. Andretti’s first major victory came in the USAC Midgets in 1962 and two years later, he made his debut in Indy Cars. He won his first of four Indy Car championships a year later.
His career skyrocketed in 1967 winning the Daytona 500 and his first of three wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race. In 1969, Andretti won his only Indianapolis 500. It was one of 52 IndyCar/Champ Car wins, second on the all-time list only to 67 for A.J. Foyt.
When he wasn’t in Indy or Formula cars he could be found racing USAC stock cars or even back in sprint cars on the dirt tracks. In 1974, he showed his versatility by winning races in the Formula 5000 series and the USAC National Dirt Track championship.
“It was like would you rather sit home on the couch or race somewhere else,” he said. “It’s a personal thing with the drivers. I had contracts which forbade me from doing anything else. When I was in Formula One going for the championship, we had an off week and they asked what I was going to do.
“I told them I was going back to the states to race for Roger Penske. They were like, ‘You can’t do that.’ I told them, ‘I know, but I will.’ I never argued over my contracts when they said you can’t do this or that. I would go along with them, but I did what I wanted. It’s tough to be an individual if you want to or not.”
While there are instances of drivers going back to their roots like Kyle Larson in sprint cars or Kyle Busch in late models, about the only time there is much crossover is the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race where NASCAR and IndyCar drivers will frequently compete.
The last NASCAR driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500 was Kurt Busch, who finished sixth in 2014, driving for Andretti Autosport, the team owned by Mario’s son Michael. Open-wheel drivers have earned varying degrees of success after turning their attention to NASCAR.
Two-time Indy 500 winner and seven-time Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya won two NASCAR races over a seven-year stock car career. Danica Patrick fizzled in NASCAR despite driving for one of the top teams in Stewart-Haas Racing, while AJ Allmendinger won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL course.
Three-time NASCAR and former IndyCar champion Tony Stewart has had one of the most successful crossover careers. Stewart, who retired from NASCAR in 2016, has six wins in sprint car competition this season.
Asked if he had any aspirations of making a career in NASCAR after his Daytona 500 victory, Andretti said it was never a serious consideration. He had three top-10 finishes in 14 NASCAR starts and finished 27th in his only start at Charlotte.
“I felt where I belonged was in the small-seat, open-wheel cars,” Andretti said. “That was what I loved the most. I was already looking at Formula One. In fact a year later, I debuted in Formula One.
“I loved the opportunity in NASCAR with my great relationship with Ford, putting me with Holman-Moody which was the one of top teams. When you cross over anywhere, you have to be careful who you’re driving for. You have to have the equipment to be competitive and get a good result.”